'I was doing a good deed.' Nigel Wright takes the stand

Mike Duffy as a contractor from hell, and an improbable story made plausible through force of will. Nick Köhler resumes his post at the Mike Duffy trial

Nigel Wright, former chief of staff to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, makes his way through a crush of media as he arrives to testify at the criminal trial of embattled Sen. Mike Duffy in Ottawa Wednesday, August 12, 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

Nigel Wright, former chief of staff to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, makes his way through a crush of media as he arrives to testify at the criminal trial of embattled Sen. Mike Duffy in Ottawa Wednesday, August 12, 2015. Justin Tang/CP

“I walked down the hall to his office and raised both of those points with him,” is what we heard, finally, and it was like rain after endless, endless drought.

The office was Stephen Harper’s in the Langevin Block, the points went to the heart of the scandal then enveloping Sen. Mike Duffy and the Conservatives in the winter of 2013, and the man presenting this vivid account, here in Courtroom 33, once held one of the most powerful jobs in Canada.

It was Nigel Wright, that strange human equivalent to the wave-particle quandary, now shedding a soft glow from the confines of the witness box, all smart and adolescent grin, now pulsing with epileptic fury, a strobe light bouncing off the walls.

Wright has an introvert’s tendency to fold his arms against himself, and he is a tiny man, trim to the point of miniature. There’s a gangly awkwardness there too, like a kid in his first suit, though he is a man of 52.

Then he swings his gaze across the room, fixes his interlocutor with a look, and does not seem to notice his eyes have a withering effect, like sunlight through a glass.

That pivot of eyeball from left to right is so powerful it can throw the room’s centre of gravity off-kilter. All at once it is made obvious that this man is capable of brutal sternness, and you get some clue to what his underlings must have felt when they found themselves at the business end of that stare.

“I am beyond furious,” he wrote in an email to close colleagues in the PMO on Feb. 26, 2013, having just learned that Duffy had claimed more than $90,000 in questionable expenses, rather than just the $30,000 or so they had anticipated. “This will all be repaid,” he wrote.

When Crown prosecutor Jason Neubauer asked Wright what connection there was between his anger and that promise of reimbursement, Wright peered into the room with all the savage determination of a swordsman from Seven Samurai, telling the court:

“I don’t want to be sensational but I felt this was an outrage on the taxpayer and had to be made whole.”

Such was that look, the caliper grip of Wright’s dominant right eye seizing the courtroom, that it seemed advisable to believe the guy. Advisable and a little safer.

    Here was the remarkable trick of Wright’s testimony today at Ottawa’s Elgin Street courthouse, where Duffy is on trial for 31 counts of breach of trust, fraud and bribery: with what appeared to be enormous strength of will, Harper’s former right-hand man made the improbable story of why he gave Duffy $90,172 of his own money feel suddenly plausible, reasonable—even like the only thing that Wright ever could have done, been expected to do.

    “I couldn’t,” Wright told Courtroom 33 at one point, “think of another way of doing it.”

    Why did so few people—including the PM, according to Wright’s testimony—not know he was using his own money to reimburse Duffy for paying what Duffy probably owed anyway? Neubauer asked.

    “I was doing a good deed,” Wright replied, “and you tend to want to keep those quiet.”

    A good deed, no effort to mask or hide, just goodness applied with rigour and muscle.

    Part of what made Wright’s long-awaited tale tick—made the cogs lock into place and spin—was his characterization of Duffy as something like the contractor from hell: a guy hired to spruce up the joint who instead commits a terrible mess, then afterwards never stops demanding payment for the bum work.

    In a narrative that unspooled awful fast according to Neubauer’s prompting, Wright talked of endless emails, interminable calls from Duffy, of listening to the former broadcaster from P.E.I. yammer about his cottage.

    Perhaps just paying the guy’s way would end that small nightmare, and as a happy by-product end the crisis facing the Conservative movement to which Wright has been a long-time participant.

    When Sen. Irving Gerstein, chair of the Conservative fund, balked at the $90,000 figure, and withdrew his offer to defray Duffy’s costs, Wright said he went ahead and decided to cover the bill.

    “I think in this matter his judgment was better than mine,” he said, pretty ruefully, of Gerstein.

    Wright explained he felt cornered by his own commitment to Duffy—”I felt exposed to him … I had an obligation”—and by the unpredictable way in which circumstances escalated, slipped beyond his grasp. “It was a relatively quick—because I lived to regret it—but it was a relatively quick decision,” he said. “I just said I would do it.”

    Like that. Perfectly laid out, with no apparent regard for vanity, like to a confessor.

    In fact, he could do it, with little trouble: Wright said the loss of $90,000 would have little effect upon his net worth, the way he lived his life. He could do it and he did do it.

    What of that walk to Harper’s office? Wright told court he didn’t even raise the issue of money with the PM—why worry the boss over details?—but instead he wanted to make sure the PM knew they were forcing a guy who didn’t believe he had improperly claimed expenses into paying those claims back, and that they’d be messaging this as an acknowledgment of error on the senator’s part, rather than of wrongdoing.

    For all that, Wright needed to know if they’d be good to go. And they were.

    For all the waiting that courtroom observers have put in just to hear from Wright, it means very little that little new came out in today’s account. Sure, we learned for example that Duffy asked Chris Woodcock, at the time the PMO’s director of issues management, for “language that is down-home Mike Duffy” and to “insert P.E.I.-isms” in media talking points developed ahead of his famous mea culpa on P.E.I. TV. But mostly Wright did not stray far from the narrative already contained in RCMP court filings.

    At bottom this first day of his testimony, speedily dispatched by Neubauer—like Wright an economically built man, so that the examination in chief arrived like a contest of action figures—leaves one with a gestalt impression, and hungry also for the start of cross-examination by the redoubtable Donald Bayne, Duffy’s lawyer.

    That happens—tomorrow. And Bayne cleaves to no RCMP story lines.

    Court reporter Nicholas Köhler on the Duffy trial

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